Owen Harris

August 30, 2015 – Art, People

Stephen Totterdell Hi Owen

Owen Harris Hello

ST Okay, so I first wanted to ask you why you think the concept of play is important, and why you think it has become such a huge part of our culture at this point in time

OH Ok, let’s talk about why play is important first of all.

ST Great.

OH This is a pretty big question and I could fill a book but I’ll try and keep it short. First of all play is pleasurable and pleasure is important. One day we will all be dead.

ST This is true.

OH Life, left to its own devices, is a process of entropy and loss. I think it extremely sensible to fill it with as much pleasure as possible. Friendship, physical pleasure, creative satisfaction and indeed play. Life can seem very fast and chaotic if we do not take the time for pleasure. There are other reasons, smaller reasons. But death is probably the best one

ST That’s a good point. A lot of writing on games tends to focus on their relationship with improving life skills and doesn’t talk much about pleasure.

OH As to the second part of the question, I disagree with it. I don’t think it is a big enough part of society. Play is still somewhat taboo. Pleasure is taboo, too. This society we live is in the ruins of the industrial revolution. So much of our societal thinking is about being productive factory workers

ST Absolutely.

OH I would love to see play and pleasure elevated to a high and noble pursuit. That is why I have started time tabling time off in my weekly schedules. Time to play and explore.

ST That’s interesting. And do you relate the time off to an increase in productivity, or is it purely time off?

OH That is a happy side effect. But I would take it regardless. After all……death.

ST Of course. So do you think there is a mistake being made when videogames are discussed in more utilitarian terms, the term ‘edutainment’ for example…

OH Not at all. Games, and video games too, can be used for all sorts of things, and I think we should embrace that. But sometimes I think the way we put game based learning on a pedestal of playful design is to do with the societal taboos about play and out nervousness about not being “productive”.


ST Do you think that game development emphasises a sense of community? I notice a lot of the events include game designers from around the world who all seem to know each other. Traditionally, community-based societies that eschew individualism tend to have higher life satisfaction. Do you find this dynamic to play out in game culture?

OH The best reason in the world to make games is to be involved in the global playful community. They are an outstanding set of people. Here in Dublin we have a great community too. You are right to note there are a lot of events happening. I am not familiar with the relationship between individualism and happiness. I think the community is highly individual, but perhaps I am just speaking within the fish tank. The ancient idea of relinquishing the ego to embrace joy would fit in well with your observation though.

ST Well, what made me think of that is that there appears to be (from the outside, anyway) less of an auteur-based approach to making games than you would have in, say, film or literature. There are exceptions, but a lot of great games are celebrated as being made by a particular team rather than one central figure.

OH I guess it depends on what kind of games we are talking about. Board game and RPG’s always highlight the designer is a big way. Within Video Game there is a growing auteur culture within the punk/altgame movement.

ST There I would think of people like Davey Wreden, I guess.

OH But within traditional game development is it has long been a team sport. Yeah! Davey is a good example. Or Llaura Dreeemfeel from our own community

ST Yes, Curtain was fantastic. With regard to Curtain, do you think games can explore empathy in a unique way? That experience was something that maybe one could only understand through either living it or playing the game. There are other games – for example, Autism, which demonstrates what it is like to be autistic and be bombarded with perceptions. Do you think games can increase a sense of empathy between different groups in society?

OH Yeah! I think that is a great point. Because games are usual a participatory experience they allow us as players to experience a whole host of points of view and experiences. Sometimes it can be a very accurate simulation. Or sometimes it can just be about highlighting things and kicking off a train of thought. I had never really thought about life as a medieval farmer, and while the board game Agricola will not give the full experience (nor would I want it), I made me think a lot about the struggle, choices and pains of being at the mercy of a system out of your control.

ST Do you think it is helpful for people to be able to engage in play in order to deal with their anxiety or their depression? Do you think it reduces their hesitancy about treating their issues – for example, a lot of people will put off going to the doctor.

OH I think play will help pretty much everything. Now, I think it is really important to say that I think, while deep is really helpful to me, it will never be a replacement for therapy, meditation or medication, nor would I want it to be.

ST Absolutely

OH What it can do is teach people some really simple and effective coping skills. That makes everything a little bit better. And give people a good experience for their time playing it. The fact that is has opened up so many conversations about depressions and anxiety is fantastic.

ST Yes, it’s amazing.

OH I try to talk about my own problems very openly. I think it is important that we bring all this stuff in to the sun.

ST I agree. I think over the last few years there’s been a shift in talking about these things – the stigma, although it’s there, has decreased a lot. Even that people can play Deep and comment on how it helped them shows a lot.

OH Yeah! and it is up to all of us to keep that train moving. My favourite thing about showing it at tech events is subverting the expectations of the event by spending the whole time talking about feeling rather than doing a hard sell. It’s fun.

ST That’s very rare to see, so I’d imagine it stands out. There’s a great article by Keith Stuart in the Guardian about how Minecraft helped him build a bond with his autistic son – because it was the only thing they could both talk about. I think games are offering these experiences a lot more now.


OH That is wonderful.

ST Or games by Increpare tend to focus on one acute emotion. Last question – do you think games can offer a safe space for feeling and for emotions, and what is it about the interactive experience that allows for this?

OH OK, I’ll just gloss over larger game by saying that the fact that you can explore a world in a consequence free way allows of a degree of self expression and exploration. But let’s talk about smaller games, which is where the interesting stuff is. There is a very intimate relationship between the game designer and the player in these games. A conversation. Or perhaps a better way to think about it is a dance.

ST Yes, this sounds true.

OH There is huge intimacy there as they play with each other. But the thing is they cannot see each other. That makes is safer to say more private things. We are hidden both as player and designers. Now that I think about it, it is like a confession booth. The anonymity mixed with intimacy. Or a glory hole

ST That’s very intimate. I know what you’re saying, there’s no barrier.


Words: Stephen Totterdell

Owen Harris DEEP review: http://www.vice.com/read/experiencing-deep-the-virtual-reality-game-that-relieves-anxiety-attacks-142

Mentioned, Dublin indie game designer Stephen Lavelle (Increpare): http://www.theguardian.com/technology/2015/apr/02/increpare-the-genius-developer-who-gives-his-games-away-for-free